We speak to people on the frontline about the effects on the human mind of confronting the world’s future
‘THE WORLD’S ON FIRE,’ shouts a major red-top tabloid splash. ‘CLIMATE MELTDOWN,’ states a British broadsheet. According to an unsettling UN report, we have just 22 years to turn our environment around before things get post-apocalyptic; until famine, drought, flooding, and extreme weather cause mass fatalities. On the streets in recent weeks, police pulled climate protesters from peaceful sit-ins, while classrooms have sat empty on Fridays around the world. Climate change has permeated our cultural awareness in the last few decades – “Ice age coming/Throw it in the fire,” sings Thom Yorke, while more recently Grimes ponders on climate-fascism. The Tate’s Turbine Hall drips with melting ice from Olafur Eliasson’s project confronting glacier erosion, and ever-evolving virtual reality technology is harnessed by Marina Abramovic to address rising ocean levels. Climate change is as insidious as it is existential, an earth-spanning issue that’s reverberating across politics, society, and culture – no wonder, now, it’s infiltrating our mental health.
Research into the effect of climate crisis on mental health is expanding: in October, MIT released the report Empirical evidence of mental health risks posed by climate change, which seeks to prove environmental stressors produced by climate change pose threats to human mental health. The report compares meteorological and climatic data with reported mental health issues – an example used is 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which the research claims pushed the prevalence of mental health issues rose by four per cent in its aftermath. The Lancet Countdown, which has been tracking the hindrance of health by climate change on a global scale, concluded that “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”.
“We’ve not yet adapted to handle anything that’s so painful and scary” – Chris Robertson, Climate Psychology Alliance
‘Eco-anxiety’ and ‘climate grief’, though without official definitive diagnoses or recognition as an illness yet by the relevant bodies, has become a growing field of interest in psychology. Has the line between general worry and anxiety disorder been crossed? In Psychology Today, it’s described as “a fairly recent psychological disorder affecting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”. In the American Psychological Association’s 2017 report, eco-anxiety is described plainly as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. Symptoms include feelings of distress and anger, panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite, and insomnia.
The threat of impending societal and worldly doom is, for a growing number of people, no longer an intangible, fantastical issue that sparks thoughts of doomsday bunkers or interplanetary migration. Liv Grant, a researcher who worked on the David Attenborough-fronted BBC documentary Climate Change: The Facts, found that interactions she had with the people who live on the frontline of climate change have left her with climate anxiety. While working on the documentary, she met people whose homes were destroyed by wildfires, scientists who saw mountainous glaciers disappear into the oceans, and activists terrified by the slew of death threats for their actions. She’s experienced sleepless nights, panic attacks, and general feelings of anger and nervousness since. “I have been hit by a panic attack in the snack aisle of a supermarket, overwhelmed by the countless choices and their consequences,” Grant writes. “Hot sunny days in April scare me. I cannot stop thinking about climate change.”
Attenborough’s documentary is just one example of how climate action has lately become part of the zeitgeist. British media has mentioned ‘climate change’ more in April 2019 than it has at any other time in the previous five years, including during the Paris Agreement negotiations in 2016. It’s becoming almost impossible to ignore, and with that, to not worry about. “I think we live in an ‘escape culture’, which is designed to distract us from the difficulty of our lives,” says Chris Robertson, a psychologist and founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance. “When we come out of that bubble and are confronted in the way Liv Grant was, we’ve not yet adapted to handle anything that’s so painful and scary.”
A huge reason people avoid climate change and working on it is because it involves so much fucking grief; it involves so many days like today. But we all need to learn better grief practices, rituals and care because going forward we are going to need them.— Sophia Benoit (@1followernodad) April 15, 2019
Connor Newson, an MA student at Goldsmiths and founder of Extinction Rebellion’s GSU branch, tells Dazed about the impact the climate emergency and mobilising has had on his mental health. “It can feel like we’re making a lot of change and raising social awareness – then, when you take a step back, go back to your day job, you realise how much has to be done. It gets scary, overwhelming. Even just going back to my shared house, I’d see people putting stuff into the bin when it could be recycled and it would hit me hard then and there.”
Connor’s fears and anxieties stem from the existential time limit on the planet – we’ve got, according to some experts, less than a decade to turn it all around. It’s overt feelings of anger, hopelessness, and lack of concentration. “It’s depressing, and the feelings of hopelessness can really get you, even when you’re committed to the cause”. Connor also feels the activist push/pull: sometimes you need to take a step back for your mental health, but not feeling like you’re positively contributing can exacerbate anxiety even more. “It’s a physical and emotional labour. Organising is a responsibility – meetings, group admin – but it can be so consuming, I don’t do anything else.”
“Years ago, I took some time for myself and went travelling – I don’t think I can do that anymore, because of the detrimental effect on the environment,” Connor says. “My mental health is still something I’m trying to get to grips with.” On his own wellbeing journey, Connor has found support groups and collective organising like Extinction Rebellion as a solace for people “who feel depressed, and can be depressed together, and use that to make a difference.”
“The feelings of hopelessness can really get you, even when you’re committed to the cause” – Connor Newson
“We’re broken because the world is broken,” Alex Evans tells Dazed. Evans is the founder of the Collective Psychology project, which conducts research for bringing psychology and politics together in a polarised world. His work is an exploration of the places where our inner and outer worlds collide, one of those being poor mass mental health and climate catastrophe. “We’re living through a mass extinction event, our politics are at their most polarised, the economy is hitting our most vulnerable; at the same time, there’s massive spikes in levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide among young people. These are two sides of the same coin.” As Evans claims, our inner and outer crises are intimately linked, and play out across politics, society, and our dying planet.
This inextricable link is already playing out – climate change has the ability to exacerbate pre-existing psychological vulnerabilities, according to Lancet research. Climate change causes extreme environments (storms, floods, heat), which can “disrupt the societal and economic structures that underpin mental health”. For example, alcohol abuse is more prevalent in areas with colder, darker climates; teenagers in Nicaragua who endured Hurricane Mitch in 1998 suffered escalating numbers in post-traumatic stress and depressive disorders. Vulnerable people and places, especially in low-income countries, will be particularly worse off.
Mary-Jayne Rust, a psychotherapist, artist, and psychologist who specialises in ecopsychology in her north London practice, has seen a sustained increase in clients with cases of climate anxiety and grief across her 20-year career, and finds people more willing to talk openly about their fears for the future. “These issues don’t immediately come out, it’s usually included in the package that they might bring,” Rust tells me – she believes therapy needs to adapt to see climate change-aggravated mental health as a singular issue too, and not just a path that points psychologists to other anxieties. “Psychotherapy has a history of seeing anxiety about the world as a displaced anxiety about something personal.”
Rust is a pioneer of the Ecopsychology movement, which started in the 60s and has developed in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand. It has offshoots and ‘relatives’, like human geography and deep ecology, but remains an amorphous field. Though it may draw connotations about working outside with nature – like gardening therapy – it’s more of an “attitude”. Speaking of its mission, Rust says: “We've been disconnected from the land and from the non-human world, and that's arguably one of the roots of the ecological crisis – we need to come back into relationship with the land.” Clients of Rust’s eco-grief and anxiety manifests in dreams about dying species, food shortages, fears about the inaction of people in power (Trump and the Paris agreement is one example), and apathy or denial about future disaster among their peers.
Talia Woodin, a London-based photographer and youth coordinator at Extinction Rebellion, grew up with a family embedded in climate change activism and politics – her father was the late Mike Woodin, a previous principal speaker for the Green Party, before his death from lung cancer. “From a really young age, the consequences of human behaviour and consumption was ingrained in me,” she tells Dazed. “I’ve viewed it through the lens of my dad dying, and it has at times been really negative. Climate crisis has a really familiar, emotional connection for me. It comes with so much grief that can be paralysing.” Air pollution, a contributing factor to her father’s illness, is a big issue for Talia – “people driving or flying without much care is a big deal for me,” she says. Talia continues to experience those feelings of hopelessness, grief, and all-consuming thoughts, but cites that her photography work, and the new support networks she’s gained from the growing climate action movement, have helped. “It’s given me a feeling of security and power within the overwhelmingness of how little power we have and how chaotic everything is,” she affirms.
“Being proactive is a salve that helps soothe the anxiety that we are helpless in the face of climate change” – Mark Raven, 350.org
So how do we go about building resilience in the vast face of crisis? 350.org, the global grassroots climate movement, recommends anyone active in current climate action should be thinking about their mental health – the group has seen it become increasingly part of the conversation, and in its resources recommends climate grief counselling groups. As Mark Raven, the UK spokesperson for 350.org, tells Dazed: “Providing support mechanisms for people coming to terms with an existential crisis like climate change, especially those campaigning on it like the school strikers, is a need that I am hearing being raised more and more across the climate movement in recent months.”
The current manifestation of fear and anxiety, Raven believes, stems from the IPCC report launch in late 2018, and the way it was framed: that we have just ‘12 years left’ to turn everything around is pretty terrifying. Then, there’s the thousands of people reading Jem Benchell’s ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Chaos’ and finding its depiction of our future a huge trigger. “In many ways the community level organising and solidarity actions are not only part of the solution to the problem, but also a means of managing the emotional toll in and of itself,” Raven adds. “Anecdotally we've heard from many people, including Greta (Thunberg), that taking action alongside other people is an effective way to build networks that can provide the kind of emotional support needed, while being proactive is a salve that helps soothe the anxiety that we are helpless in the face of climate change.”
The Climate Psychology Alliance, headed up by Robertson, splits their approach to people into five key principles – recognising that “we as people are part of the problem”, addressing “existential shame”, holding the tension between “hope and despair”, offering understanding and support, restoring what we emotionally repressed, and responding actively to climate anxiety. Robertson hopes that psychology can help people find “acceptance of the tragedy in the mass extinction of species, and the ability to grieve our losses as well as resilience, courage, radical hope, and new forms of imagination that support change”. Looking to current climate activism, Robertson says the current movement is much more attuned to mental health that other activist groups he’s worked with, such as the Occupy movement.
“We need to start talking with other people about these fears and normalise it – it’s not just me, I’m not alone in this” – Chris Robertson, Climate Psychology Alliance
All of the experts interviewed for this article advocate for, above all, being open about our fears and anxieties as one of those most significant gateways to affecting real change. “We need to give people back a sense of agency,” says Evans, “a deep sense of belonging in having a shared story now – we need congregational spaces, shared stories and rituals.” This shared grief can yield power – Evans points out that Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach in 2015 made the Syrian conflict real to thousands, after years of war. In 2013, the Philippines’ chief negotiator’s breakdown at the UN climate summit, following a devastating typhoon, invigorated real political change.
Robertson adds, “we need to start talking with other people about these fears and normalise it – it's not just me, I'm not alone in this.” That comes from a lot of current self-organising, reflected in Extinction Rebellion’s counselling sessions, and the moments they schedule in talks and workshops for talking explicitly about emotions. Research has found that people with strong social networks and circles during and in the aftermath of natural disaster show lower rates of psychological distress, and a higher ability to withstand traumatic experiences – regenerative culture and looking after each other is, more and more, becoming an integral part of climate activism. There’s also a growing artistic movement around climate change, channeling fear, anger, despair, and tentative hope: Talia Woodin creates evocative photography of nature and climate activists, and young musician Faith Elliot sings of thought-consuming climate anxiety and obsession. “I thought a lot about how to make art that would change people’s minds and stir them into doing more,” she says. Robertson asserts that countries like Norway, where education is incorporating climate issues as well as ways to live sustainable, eco-friendly day-to-day lives, are leading the way for people to be mentally adept for the future.
As well as reinventing our education system, we need to be thinking about our shared attitudes to the world around us. As Rust says, “we can build resilience by giving back – rather than seeing the Earth as a resource, we actually form a relationship with the other. Our culture has a belief that the earth and the non-human world are just biological entities.” Rust recommends acquainting yourself with the rest of nature – ”sure, there’s a bit of a ‘tree-hugging hippy notion around that, but ecopsychology is about seeing every other living being as a living, aware being.” While many people can feel like they can’t individually save the world with bamboo cutlery or connecting with a tree, Rust believes collective and individual positive change, a sense of agency and empowerment, and personal self-care, can psychologically heal us.
Though it may look like the world is devoted to placard-making and creative protests, activist burn-out is real – to continue to make change, climate action has to be sustainable. Self-care has to be integral to these movements. “It's really important to make the space to do the things you find healing and nurturing,” says Evans – making the world a safe, healthy, thriving place has to be one of them.